De Waal heard the “alpha” term misused so much during Donald Trump’s campaign that he felt moved to write a corrective chapter in his new book... Although his book’s structure is rather shambolic, de Waal writes like a weathered safari guide, taking us on a freewheeling hunt for connection through the minds of all living creatures. Each chapter is crammed with fascinating descriptions of animals navigating complex emotional and social states, of humans behaving exactly like them and – sometimes – far less sensibly. Like The Naked Ape’s author Desmond Morris, de Waal steps back from the language we use to describe – or conceal – our feelings, and observes the body language that reveals more than we want to admit. We’re invited to think afresh about empathy, altruism, laughter, parenting, disgust, deceit, hate, guilt, grief, revenge and reconciliation.
There is a wealth of fascinating stories from the capuchin monkeys’ sense of fairness to jackdaws who die of broken hearts and rats who like to be tickled. Described by his publishers as “a whirlwind tour of new ideas and findings about animal emotion”, Mama’s Last Hug is a densely packed volume covering a range of emotions – empathy, sympathy, disgust, shame, sense of fairness – that we share with animals. De Waal considers emotions on a par with organs, as both “biological and essential…a logical position given how closely the emotions are tied to the body and how all mammalian bodies are fundamentally the same. They are part of our physiological makeup, we need them to survive”.
Now in his seventies, de Waal seems to intend Mama’s Last Hug as a resumé of his career. He takes us back to the day in 1980 when he learnt that his favourite alpha male chimpanzee had been butchered and emasculated by two rival males at a zoo in Arnhem. Believing them to be animals capable of concern for others, he felt justified in using the word “murder” for the culprits’ offence, and it was this incident that drew him to study reconciliation among chimpanzees.
It is, in general, a convincing book, and De Waal — who has spent a long career working with chimpanzees — is no doubt an excellent observer of primate behaviour. Yet it’s hard to know how many of his anecdotes really say what he claims they say. Does an ape called Borie really frown disapprovingly when De Waal sprays an infant chimp with water? Did a troop’s alpha females reallyintervene to stop Jimoh beating a love rival? Or has De Waal just interpreted it that way?
His book is a Janus-faced exercise. It is largely a journey through emotions in ourselves and other species, and how they function in all these animals. He then uses the data as a springboard for a reverse excursion into their implications for human thought and society... If complex emotions really are a common heritage of the whole animal kingdom, then we need to reimagine our responsibilities to, and relationship with, those creatures that share this planet. Yet de Waal should be congratulated for assembling such a powerful body of evidence from which that process can begin.
For too long, emotion has been cognitive researchers’ third rail. In research on humans, emotions were deemed irrelevant, impossible to study or beneath scientific notice. Animal emotions were simply ignored. But nothing could be more essential to understanding how people and animals behave. By examining emotions in both, this book puts these most vivid of mental experiences in evolutionary context, revealing how their richness, power and utility stretch across species and back into deep time.